December 1, 2019 Advent 1- Luke 1: (Formerly) Barren Women, and Two Baby Boys

mary and Elizabeth

Read Luke 1 today.  Remember that you can always come back to a part of the study.  Today’s chapter is rich in fulfilled prophecy. We learn how God works in and through His people, and that His word always does what He says it will.  “Impossible!” for us is possible for God.

Luke begins his Gospel (as well as the book of Acts) with a nod to our friend, Theophilus (literally: God-lover.)  Theophilus may have been a person’s actual name, but it was more likely a way of addressing the reader, as a learned listener who loves God and wishes to learn more about Him.

Luke was by trade a physician, so he was the type of person to notice details and to be logical and thorough.  He was a traveling companion to the apostle Paul. Luke was thought to be a Hellenic Jew, (a person of Greek descent who followed Judaism) writing to a primarily ethnically Jewish audience, so he assumed his readers would be familiar with the Temple laws and the Old Testament.

The scene of Chapter 1 opens on Zechariah and Elizabeth. Zechariah was a priest in the temple, and Elizabeth was his barren and long- suffering wife.

Zechariah is met as he serves in the temple by the angel Gabriel, who informs Zechariah that he and Elizabeth (even though she was way past menopause) were going to have a child.  He would be a child who even from before his birth would have to observe the Nazirite vow .  He would not be permitted to use alcohol or to cut his hair, among other restrictions.

 

Zechariah questioned Gabriel (which would seem to be a rational thing to do) and was rewarded with nine months of  being mute for doubting what God had to say.  God was true to His word in spite of Zechariah’s doubts- Elizabeth, the “barren,” did conceive a child.

Then the angel Gabriel pays a visit to Mary, the young girl who God has chosen to be Jesus’ mother.  Mary is another “barren” woman, but barren in the sense that she was a virgin and had never known a man.

In Protestant traditions we sort of shy away from talking about Mary, because we don’t want to put her in the place of God, but as long as we remember that Mary was a human, fallible sinner who, like us, also needed a Savior, there is no reason to hesitate to talk about her and to thank God for her and her role in the story of our salvation.

Mary’s response to Gabriel upon learning that she was to bear a son was similar to Zechariah’s – “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

Today we don’t think a whole lot about unwed or teenage pregnancies.  They happen all the time.  But in Mary’s world there was a deep shame brought on the family if a girl was found to be pregnant before her wedding was consummated.  The assumption would be that she was breaking the seventh Commandment and not staying pure until her wedding night.  The penalty for this under the Mosaic Law can be found in Leviticus 20:10 – “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.” 

Mary had to be aware of the penalty for adultery. She had to know that in her present state pregnancy would be risky to her person to say the least.  She asked Gabriel about the “how,” which was understandable, but she did not question the “why,” nor did she ask, “Why me?”

Instead she listens to God’s messenger tell her of her formerly barren cousin Elizabeth and how she is already six months along. She believes Gabriel when he says, “For nothing will be impossible with God.”  When Mary travels to be with her cousin, Elizabeth, even as she knows that her purity could be questioned,  even as she knows she could be condemned as an adulteress and her life could well be in danger, she sings the beautiful faith-filled Magnificat:

And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts: he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” Luke 1:46-55 (ESV)

When Mary returns to her home after visiting with Elizabeth for several months, the time comes for Elizabeth’s child to be born.

Zechariah is finally given the ability to speak after nine long months of muteness. After the relatives wanted to argue about the child’s name, because no one in Zechariah’s family was named John,  Zechariah wrote emphatically on his writing tablet: His name is John!   Then Zechariah could speak again.

What then would this child of Zechariah and Elizabeth be?  He would be John the Baptist, the last of the Old Testament prophets- the one Isaiah spoke of (Isaiah 40:3) as the voice in the wilderness, making straight a highway in the wilderness to our God.

Out of barren women God works the impossible. One woman barren from age was enabled by God to conceive a child in the natural way, and another woman barren save for only the supernatural intervention of God, also conceives a son.   These impossible births mark the beginning of the story of salvation. Two baby boys, cousins, were brought in to the world by the providence of God- the voice in the wilderness, followed by Emmanuel, God with us.

 

 

 

December 5, 2017 – Keep Awake! – Mark 13:24-37

wake-up-call_clock22

(Jesus said:) “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.  Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”

 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.  Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”

 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.  And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” Mark 13:24-37 (NRSV)

Advent is a time of waiting and watching and anticipation. The Christmas story is so tender and sweet, with Joseph and Mary on a donkey, making their way to Bethlehem for Jesus to be born. We all love to sing carols like “Silent Night” that picture the baby Jesus in a manger. But verses such as this passage from Mark 13 and others like it (such as Matthew 24) when Jesus spoke of His return used to turn my blood to ice.  Jesus isn’t portrayed as a sweet baby or even as a nice guy in this passage.  He is coming back with an attitude.

Yes we should savor Advent and take the time to get away from the holiday hoo-hah to reflect on what God With Us really means. We should rejoice with Elizabeth and delight in Mary’s song of the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55).  We should look at the manger with wonder and awe.  We do know that Jesus will return at some point in human history, and it will be a dramatic return. The thought of His return can seem rather frightening, especially when taken in the context of popular movies and books that are loosely based on apocalyptic passages of the Bible.  However, we need to take apocalyptic passages as part of the whole counsel of Scripture and not turn them into a bang them up action movie.  There is a great deal of exaggeration and metaphor in apocalyptic literature which is meant to drive the message home.

What if Jesus returns in the midst of the chaos? What if He comes back right into the middle of destruction, death and human suffering?  Where will we be in that drama when He arrives? Are we going to be on the “good guy” side? Will He catch us “being good?”

Rather than looking at Jesus’ return as some kind blazing inferno action flick, why not see and anticipate Him as He really is: a deliverer, the one who will end suffering, death, destruction, and agony? He is the One we cry out to when we are suffering, when we are in despair, when there is no hope left.  We reach out to Him from the chaos and uncertainty that characterize our lives.

We can look forward and watch and wait and anticipate that day, knowing that He will find His people who He has named and claimed waiting for Him and already bringing about His kingdom here on earth.

It has been said that when Martin Luther was asked what he would do if he knew today were the end of days, he said he would plant a tree.

God asks us to do the planting and the tending. The harvest is up to Him.  Not every good thing we do will bear fruit that we will see, but it is all known to God.  We wait and watch and hope and work and pray, not in fear, but with excitement and joy.  Be awake.  We don’t want to miss this!

 

 

 

 

December 1, 2017- Faith Fulfilled, John the Baptist and Joy in the Morning- Luke 1:1-25, Psalm 30:5

zechariah

In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.  Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.

Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside.  Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him.  But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.  He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.”  

 The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.  But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”

 Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” Luke 1:1-25 (NRSV)

Infertility is not just a modern issue. In Biblical times children (specifically sons) were viewed as gifts from God.  If a woman was not blessed with children those around her wondered what was wrong with her.  She was viewed as “defective,” and her husband was considered to be “cursed.” Zechariah and Elizabeth both wondered what they had done that was so wrong that God withheld children from them.  They had come to that place in life where they had probably accepted that they would never be parents.

Yet they still prayed, even when what they were seeing didn’t coincide with what they believed and hoped for.

Faith is not the absence of doubt, nor is it denying reality. Faith is trust in God that He has made a way, even if that way doesn’t fall in line with our expectations. God has the infinite ability to exceed our expectations and to answer our prayers in ways that we can’t envision.

For Zechariah (who had his doubt issues!) and Elizabeth the waiting and disappointment ended when God gave them the joy of a son in their advanced age, a son who God had very special plans for, who He chose to reserve for a couple who would cherish him and raise him in a home that honors God.

It seems a bit confusing that John the Baptist was a very austere man- set aside from the time of his conception to follow the Nazirite vow, (Numbers 6:1-21) a man who lived frugally, by himself, yet Jesus, his cousin who followed, enjoyed eating and drinking and celebrating.

John was a man who paved the way- a man who pled with us to get rid of all the things that aren’t necessary, to open our hearts and minds to receive God With Us. It is said he was the last of the Old Testament prophets and the first of the New Testament disciples.  He walked that long, lonely path of waiting and anticipating the “not yet.”

Many of us who walk similar paths of waiting and praying- those of us who are anticipating a breakthrough in our lives, whether it be an improvement in health, healing of relationships, financial worries, often have a hard time holding on to faith. We endure loss, suffering and pain of myriad kinds in this lifetime.  Whether we are aware of it or not, God does hear our prayers.  He does walk with us.  He does weep and mourn with us.  And He holds the promise of joy in the morning.

Our lives carry stories of tragedy redeemed. We live stories like the story of Ruth, who had lost everything and whose life looked hopeless, until she discovered Boaz, who married her and redeemed her. (Ruth 4)

Zechariah and Elizabeth had their joy in the morning. Infertility wasn’t the end of their story. Many of us are still in our lost and mourning and suffering part of the journey, wandering in the wilderness.  In this world we are waiting, anticipating, and almost consigning ourselves to the fact that the status quo will prevail.  God says differently. In the season of Advent we learn there is a Savior coming to us.  We can endure the waiting, the doubt, the suffering, because God With Us has promised healing, redemption and hope.  There will be joy in the morning.

For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning. Psalm 30:5 (NRSV)

 

 

December 9, 2016- The Reality of the Presence of God-Luke 1:39-45

mary-and-elizabeth

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country,  where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.   When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit  and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?  For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” Luke 1:39-45 (NRSV)

It’s hard to imagine the joy both of these women are celebrating.  Elizabeth had endured years of infertility and had despaired of ever having a child.  Mary had been given the impossible news that not only would she- a virgin- give birth to a child, but also that her child was the very Son of God.

This passage tells us much about Who God is and how He works.

The children- Jesus and John the Baptist- were still in their mothers’ wombs.  They were at the most innocent and vulnerable stage of life, yet the life and the presence of God was made obvious even at this stage of development.  Elizabeth immediately was filled with the Holy Spirit, and the child, John, jumped for joy even though he had not yet been born.  The Presence of God was very much with Jesus even though He, too had not yet been born.  It seems that God comes to us even in the most lowly, helpless and vulnerable among us.

Elizabeth also points out that there is blessing in believing.  Elizabeth had been believing for a very long time.  She probably had plenty of doubts and despair to go along with that belief, but her belief in the reality of God’s promise of a child was made real to her in that moment.  She knew for some time before Mary’s visit that she was going to have a child, but there is a certain reality in that child’s presence, as mothers know, when that child makes him or herself known by kicking and jumping.

How does God make His presence known to us today?  Yes, He is in the fanfare and the majesty and the bigness of this world, but some of His biggest miracles can be found among the least of us and in the smallest places.

So what do we do when we keep believing and we still don’t see what God promises? How do we believe some more?

Two peasant women.  Two unborn babies.  Unimaginable blessings, and yet more evidence of God with us.